Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009 | 6:02 p.m.
Rocker Sammy Hagar has finally opened his Las Vegas flagship outpost of Cabo Wabo Cantina that he founded in 1991. It’s taken 18 years to bring the party playground up from the Mexican Baja to Sin City. Just hours before its official weekend opening in Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops, Sammy flew in from his San Francisco Bay Area home to give me a tour and chat about his near two-decade journey:
Robin Leach: For a man who loves the rock and roll of Las Vegas, why the heck did it take you so long to bring Cabo Wabo here?
Sammy Hagar: Tell me about it. I have been trying to make different deals in this town, and something would always happen. Maybe the guy I was trying to do it with would get fired or the building would get repossessed. It’s crazy, and I didn’t want to be attached to just anything because Cabo Wabo has such a vibe, its own energy and theme, that it doesn’t go along with some of the other themes of the hotels. And these other theme hotels were trying to get me to put a Cabo Wabo in, and I was like no, it doesn’t work there, it has to be kind of standalone. I have just been too uppity.
RL: How long has Cabo Wabo been in Cabo?
SH: Since 1991. I started it in 1988 when I wrote the song “Cabo Wabo” for the Van Halen record. I bought the property, and then it took about three or four years to build down there then since everything was done by hand. It’s been a great success story because most people, when you do a business south of the border to start with, who knows how long it's going to be, but it has been consistently successful from the first year, and I am the luckiest guy in the world to have that.
RL: I go there twice a year because it’s so special, but what is it that attracted you to the place? What did you feel, what did you taste, what did you sense when you went there for the first time?
SH: Well, it’s still there to start with, even though it’s crowded with wall-to-wall hotels and businesses and everything else. To me, the same thing that is still there is something really spiritual and magical about Baja, the whole peninsula and Cabo being down there just has a special feeling. The weather is phenomenal, the water is phenomenal, but what put the hook in me is I went down there in 1982, I was a rock star, I had been on MTV. You know that’s when MTV first started, so I had my videos, and I was pretty famous, and anywhere I went, people would know me. Anyone that knew rock ’n’ roll would be like, ‘there’s Sammy Hagar.’ I went to Cabo and I could have walked down the street in my stage clothes screaming and yelling my biggest hit, and people would have thought who is this crazy gringo and what is he so excited about. That really appealed to me. I thought. ‘Man, this is pretty cool. I can totally go up and sing with mariachis, and nobody wants to come up and take a picture or wants an autograph.’ And I loved that lifestyle and the smells of barbecue chicken and shrimp on the barbie walking down the street, and the mariachi music and the ambiance just gives me goose bumps. And I said I am going to buy a house here, and I did in 1982, and then I said I am going to build a freakin’ place where I can play music, and I did, and I still love the place.
RL: So what have you captured of that magic from Cabo in this Strip-front restaurant here at Planet Hollywood?
SH: It’s kind of early for me to judge it because I have only been there once. The last time I saw you at Emeril’s charity in The Venetian -- you know that’s twice in two weeks after not seeing you in 20 years -- I went over there right after, which was the first time I had seen it. It was great, but the food, we are trying to keep it authentic. We have the Cabo shrimp, and we use a lot of tequila-based sauces, which give the smells when you heat it up. Like fajitas marinated in some tequila and when you throw them on the fire, and you start smelling the agave coming off and you are drinking tequila, you really do kind of get that smell and that feeling and that little buzz that you get from tequila. And you can maybe close your eyes and think you are in Mexico, at least at the Cabo Wabo.
I’m really just trying to bring the rock ’n’ roll aesthetic to the glitz and glamour on the Strip. If I had put the authentic Cabo Cantina in place here, people would say, ‘No, this belongs downtown.’ It’s a little too authentic, so we tried to make it modern, cool, a little more high-tech Cabo Wabo. But the food is still authentic, and the drinks are fantastic. I don’t drink those big slush yard drinks they sell for 39 cents, but the real margaritas are made from hand-squeezed lime, and they are handmade margaritas that are awesome, and the food is great. Like I said, my friends and my music will be predominately played here, and we’ll be live, so people who come are guaranteed to have a good time.
The main thing is that it is a flip-flop, tank top, around-the-clock, nonstop-type vibe that you don’t have to get dressed up for. Come as you are, and you hopefully don’t have to wait in line. Sometimes it might be packed to get in, but nobody is ever going to cut in line ahead of you. You know I like the down home way of life. First come, first served. Hey, I earned this. I deserve it. So that is what Cabo Wabo stands for, and I am going to keep that enforced.
RL: Are you happy being a restaurateur or a vocalist?
SH: Robin, that is such an unfair question. I really love both. I love all kinds of things. I get excited about an idea, and I just want to do it. My reason for doing things anymore is because I love doing it. I love seeing a project through, and I think if I had to do only one, I would of course be a singer. But I love being able to do the other projects.
RL: You have this new group called Chickenfoot, so you are still rocking. Are you gong to go out like Jagger, 70 years of age and still rocking?
SH: I hope so. It’s not a plan, but every time I go on a big trip or tour, like Chickenfoot we did a world tour this year, the hardest I have worked in so long, and I really got tired at the end of it and thought, “Man, I don’t know if I want to do this anymore.’ Then I take a month off or six weeks, and I am thinking I want to go play the Cabo Wabo, so I go pop into town and jump up onstage. I love doing it, and I don’t want to necessarily just pack up and live out of a suitcase for the rest of my life, but I want to go play. That’s the good thing about having a Cabo Wabo. I can go to my own places and jump up on the stage every night of the week if I wanted to, and singing is a special thing and it really does get in your skin. I hope Mick isn’t doing if for money.
RL: No, I think he is doing it to keep the 470 people on his payroll employed. That’s the problem of touring with a big rock ’n’ roll band
SH: Yes, they have a huge overhead. We are a little more low-key than that. The cool thing about Chickenfoot is that I put together a band of people that I have dreamed of and wanted to play with. I said what’s my dream band: Joe (Satriani) on guitar, (Michael) Anthony on bass and myself singing. That’s my dream band, and it worked. It went gold in every country, and to do that at my age, man, I feel good about it. It shows that my passion is still there for it.
RL: If you were to take your wife for dinner and drinks at this new restaurant, what would you order? What is you favorite?
SH: I would go with the Wabo shrimp, and I bet she would have the chicken fajitas, or I might toss about the beef fajitas. Most fajitas are not made this way, but we have a twist and marinate it in the tequila, and then you put it on that hot pan and those smells are coming off and you take that shot of tequila. That is where you are going to get that ambiance of the true thing walking down in Cabo. If you have two shots, that happens and you smell the fajitas. If you could hear the mariachi music at that moment, you might get transported.
I am straight tequila guy. Margaritas are the best drinks ever invented. I love them, but to me, tequila, I love tequila. I like the way it tastes, no salt, no lime. My way to drink it is you do take salt the very first time before you take tequila because it sets your palate properly, so you use a little sea salt or kosher salt, but a little bit. Then you start drinking tequila, you don’t slam it, you know a couple ounces should get you three or four sips. It’s a great high, a great drink. It makes you a different person, I hate to say it. You know people don’t fight on tequila. You drink whiskey, you start fighting. You drink beer, you start fighting. You start drinking tequila, and you are on the stage taking your clothes off and usually wind up in love.
I am not a big drinker. I just get my little buzz and nurse the rest. I take it easy these days!
Sammy’s two-level, 15,000-square-foot flagship Cabo Wabo Cantina is located at Planet Hollywood’s Miracle Mile Shops on the Strip. He performed opening night with the Waboritas, and not only did members of Chickenfoot show up in support, but country pal Kenny Chesney also performed a duet with him.
Ole Mas Tequila por favor! Andiamo!
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground. Read more of Robin's stories at VegasDeLuxe.com.
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